The Power of “What If?”

It is the motto of dreamers from children to artists to engineers.

“What if I move this block over here? Can I build my tower higher?”

“What if I try setting these variables constant? Can I see a pattern emerge?”

“What if we try to harness the power of the tides to generate electricity? What is the potential amount of power we could make?”

“What is the best way to implement high-speed rail systems, and what opportunities would that provide?”

True, “What if?” can be seen as a pointless exercise, leading one to daydreams, regret, and recrimination. But ignoring the “What if?” in life consigns us to our staid viewpoint and ignores more promising avenues. Someone who wonders, “What if the British had won the Revolutionary War?” ponders alternate history. But I prefer to think of alternate futures. Before us lie always many potential paths. Indeed, in multiverse theory, every time a decision or event happens that could have gone more than one way, the universe branches with one path for each possible outcome, leading to an infinity of parallel universes. Some of these worlds differ from ours in only small details, while in others the dinosaurs might never have become extinct. Being able to imagine these branches lets us see possible consequences of our actions as well as new areas to explore.

Americans are proud of blazing new paths, and rightfully so, for what speaks more to the vitality of a civilization than its ability to grow, improve, and progress? And what is more responsible for humanity’s exponential strides in the last few centuries than science and technology? I would go so far as to argue that continual improvement of technology is the most important issue facing us. Many of the most pressing problems today — climate change, clean energy, health care, and aging infrastructure, to name a few — need new ideas and technologies to be solved. But it is often in the face of great problems that humanity has found the greatest solutions. In the 1940’s alone, driven by World War II, aircraft progressed from flimsy biplanes to sleek jets and rockets, the first computer was invented (at my own University of Pennsylvania), and, for good or bad, the key to unlock nuclear energy was discovered. In the next century, we may see many devices from science fiction come to life, such as robots for our everyday needs, nuclear fusion, and hypersonic and space travel. But it is equally certain that a large number of inventions will be unpredictable revelations, fascinating in the new possibilities they unlock. All these inventions will be driven by a simple question: “What if?”